Far-flung foreign jihadists enter Syrian fray
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When a Dutch journalist was kidnapped in Syria last month, he discovered his captors hailed from countries as far-flung as Britain and Bangladesh, proof that an increasing number of foreign jihadists are setting up operations in Syria.
Comedies about British lads with working class Birmingham accents playing jihadists in some exotic Muslim land have been made in the past. Except this time, it was real, not remotely funny, and it happened in Syria -- just as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad predicted.
For Dutch photographer Jeroen Oerlemans, the absurdist nightmare began on July 19, shortly after he crossed the border from Turkey into Syria along with British photographer John Cantlie.
The two journalists were kidnapped by a group of men and taken to a jihadist camp in northern Syria. But very quickly, Oerlemans realised there was something odd about their kidnappers.
“Almost immediately we realised they were not from Syria,” said Oerlemans in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 days after he was released. “Some of them said they were from Bangladesh, some of them were from the UK and they had Birmingham accents, while others may have been from Pakistan. They were a real mix. ”
In the British film “Four Lions” -- a jihadist comedy released in 2010 -- the main characters are a bunch of UK-born terrorist wannabes as hilariously inept as the Three Stooges.
But at the jihadist camp in northern Syria, Oerlemans found the British contingent a decidedly humourless lot.
“The British jihadists were very religious. They were all brainwashed -- they kept saying England is doing ‘bad stuff’. They kept asking us, ‘Are you ready to die?’ They were all youngsters -- I saw one or two kids who looked like they were around 16. But most of them were in their early 20s,” said Oerlemans.
The Dutch and British photographers were accused of being CIA spies and held for over a week. They spent much of their captivity handcuffed and blindfolded following a failed escape attempt that ended with Oerlemans being shot in the thigh and foot.
Given the harrowing circumstances of their captivity, Oerlemans said it was difficult to get a clear idea of the size of the jihadist group. But he reckoned the camp was “big enough to house around hundred people.”
Their captors never mentioned the name of their group, nor did they supply their leader’s name. But the fighters kept referring to their “emir” or “sheikh” who was never identified, according to Oerlemans. “They said he was an experienced fighter who fought in many wars, and they hinted that he fought in Afghanistan.”
The jihadist videos play a familiar tune
Ever since the uprising began last year, Assad’s regime has described the opposition as “foreign-backed terrorists” dominated by al Qaeda and other jihadists.
It’s a charge the Syrian opposition -- including the umbrella fighting force, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) -- has denied.
But 18 months after the uprising began, there are signs that jihadist groups are taking advantage of the instability in Syria to set up operations in much the same way they did in neighbouring Iraq following Saddam Hussein’s fall.
Over the past few months, YouTube -- the video-sharing site that has hosted much of the footage of the Syrian uprising -- has featured a number of clips familiar to jihadist media experts.
Some of the videos feature fighters with faces shrouded in keffiyehs posing against the jihadist black flag imprinted with the shahadah (the Muslim vow of faith) or performing drills in unknown locales. The audio track loops through rousing Koranic verses used by al Qaeda-linked propaganda videos.
From Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Europe and places in-between
Accurate estimates of the number of foreign jihadists in Syria are hard to arrive at. But Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who has been monitoring jihadist groups in Syria, estimates that there are around 800 fighters from foreign countries in Syria today.
Most of the foreign fighters, according to Zelin, come from neighbouring countries, such as Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan.
“But we have also seen contingents from Libya, Tunisia and there are also Algerians. A number of the Libyans are believed to have fought in the anti-[Muammar] Gaddafi uprising last year,” said Zelin. “There have also been some Western nationals, but their numbers are far smaller.”
Many of the foreign fighters have infiltrated through Syria’s northern border with Turkey or the eastern border with Iraq, according to Shashank Joshi from the London-based Royal United Services Institute.
“It depends on where they’re coming from -- Iraq is easier, because the border is less in use and there’s obviously the presence of Sunni tribesmen in the region,” said Joshi, referring to the tribes of Syria’s eastern Deir az-Zor region, many of whom helped jihadists infiltrate neighbouring Iraq following the US invasion.
‘The great new hope’ on the jihadist media circuit
The situation on the ground in Syria is a complicated one, with the FSA maintaining only a loose control of about 50,000 fighters. Even under the FSA umbrella, new local rebel groups continue to be formed, which presents a challenge to command and control, according to a June 2012 report by Joseph Holliday of the Washington DC-based Institute for the Study of War.
Outside the FSA umbrella, the picture is far more chaotic. An unknown number of jihadist groups operate in Syria, including groups such as the Lebanese Abdullah Azzam Brigades and Fattah al-Islam -- a radical Sunni group that clashed with the Lebanese military at a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon in 2007.
One of the more high profile jihadist groups in Syria today is the Jabhat al-Nusra (The Victory Front) -- or Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham, as it’s sometimes called.
The group first announced its existence in a January 2012 video featuring a spokesman who goes by the name Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani. The video was released on jihadist forums and tracked by counter-cyber-terror experts.
Jabhat al-Nusra frequently claims car bombings and other attacks in Syria in messages released by the group’s media wing, Al-Manara al-Baida, which literally means the White Minaret. But while the group has released several statements, not much is known about its members, including their nationalities.
Jabhat al-Nusra is a relative newcomer on the global jihadist circuit but created a buzz on jihadist forums when the group was endorsed by one of the world’s most influential jihadist ideologues, a Mauritanian national named Sheikh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti.
“The group is viewed as the great new hope for jihadi groups in Syria,” said Zelin.
Saved by the FSA
Another group in Syria posting claims and messages on jihadist forums is the Ahrar al-Sham (the Liberation of Syria). Yet according to Zelin, “the group does not appear to have the following that Jabhat al-Nusra gets on the jihadist forums.”
The common element in the propaganda output of both groups, however, is the transnational message of global jihad, which is in sharp contrast to the nationalist message of other Syrian opposition groups focused on toppling Assad’s regime.
“They don’t discuss Syria,” said Zelin. “They talk about the greater cause of the struggle against the crusaders and their Zionist backers.”
But while Jabhat al-Nusra generates much excitement on the usual jihadist forums, it is difficult to gauge their appeal outside jihadist circles.
The one thing that is clear is that the Syrian opposition and senior FSA figures cannot credibly deny the existence of jihadist groups inside Syria anymore.
In recent weeks, FSA officials have called for international help “to unite the rebels and stop well-funded Islamists from expanding their influence,” according to the Economist.
But miles away from the official statements by FSA members based in Turkey, there have been some questions over whether jihadist and FSA fighters are cooperating on the ground.
Certainly in Oerlemans’ case, it was the FSA that helped liberate the kidnapped Dutch and British photographers.
More than a week after they were kidnapped, a group of FSA members suddenly stormed the camp one morning.
“They started intimidating the guys, shouting about why they were holding us like that, saying they’re going to take us,” said Oerlemans. “We were then driven away from our captors with the FSA guys’ still firing shots. It was only when we were in the car that I was able to lift my blindfolds and actually see what was going on.”
For Oerlemans, the nightmare had finally ended.
Back home in the Netherlands, he is currently recovering from his gunshot wounds. “I’m fine,” he said dismissively. “I’m recovering very well, I’m doing fine.”
For the two journalists at least, it ended well.
But few can predict if the situation in Syria over the next few weeks and months will be fine. Or if it will mirror the worst days that Syria’s neighbours, such as Lebanon and Iraq, have already had to endure.